Book Review: The Urban Farm Handbook by Annette Cottrell and Joshua McNichols


This is one of those great books that got us excited all over again to be doing what we’re already doing. Everything in this book is accessible: it all sounds alluring and simple and it’s all described with great enthusiasm.

It’s arranged seasonally and each chapter has recipes; some for whole meals, some for artisan breads and cheeses. They are all easy and doable and drool-worthy. Each chapter within the seasons has “opportunities for change”: a run down of the varying shades of self-sufficiency and/or sustainability that are available to you for said chapter. Dairy for instance. For a start you could buy organic milk. If you want to do more you can look for organic and/or unhomogenized and/or unpasteurized milk from a local farmer. If that’s not good enough for you you could raise your own dairy goats. As the authors say, “You might think of these as ‘different levels of crazy.’ Choose the level that suits your personality.”

Infectious enthusiasm is one key element in a how-to book. The other element I look for in books about the lifestyle I already lead is “Aha” moments. Sentences or ideas that make me grab my pencil and take furious notes or say – out loud – “Damn, why didn’t I think of that years ago?!” In this book one of the “Aha” moments was the “produce eating plan”, a marvelously analytical chart in which you determine your family’s food needs for an entire year – and what seasons you eat it in! I really wish I had made a chart like this before I started planting. Instead I have spent years determining how much of what to grow (and how much land to till for it) based on trial and error. Seed catalogs sometimes include charts that tell you average yields for their seeds, but that still doesn’t help if you don’t have a realistic idea of how much you will consume.

A uniquely Pacific Northwestern topic covered in this book is sun. We’ve all got shade problems on this side of the Cascades, haven’t we? Many books advocate (and for good reason) using short-season crops in the PNW to deal with our cool and wet weather, but I hadn’t yet run across a book that detailed the sun requirements for edibles – in fact, I didn’t even know that there were different sun requirements! I assumed (and you know my favorite saying . . .) that they all needed full sun. I’m pleased to be proven wrong this time.

“Aha” moment #3: a brilliantly simple way to get started on crop rotation. “A good rule to plant by is ‘leaf to fruit to root to legume’.” After they explain their rationale I am left holding my head and chanting, “I’m an idiot. I’m an idiot.” The best advice is the kind that seems self-evident after you’ve heard it – but that you couldn’t figure out on your own.

Living food is covered in this book, too. And I must say that this book had the most accurate description I’ve read so far of slaughter: unflinching without being dramatic. So many books skirt around what really happens, saying that birds “may flap some” after beheading, or that shot pigs “kick”. (Dial that up a few notches, kids. Way up.) But Cottrell and McNichols do keep their coverage of the death issue respectful. Also, they have lots of great information on the various available methods of getting good meat or getting animals transformed into meat – something I don’t think a whole lot of folks are intuitively aware of.

Finally, I would like to note that, yes, Joshua McNichols is the same Joshua McNichols you know and love from our local NPR affiliate KUOW.



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